Imagine trying to capture the family history starting from your grandfather’s grandfather through today. How would you construct the narrative over those six generations? Would you take a timeline approach by filling in important details over the course of those hundred-plus years? Or would you try a different approach the way Katherine Howe did with her co-author Anderson Cooper in their book, Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty?
Interview Highlights With Katherine Howe
- How the book project landed in Katherine’s lap
- The prior knowledge of these generations before the research started
- Does an author ever become numb when the people she’s researching are not good stewards of money?
- The family member approach to storytelling
- Alva’s $6.4 million ball
- One of Mark’s favorite family members (it involves a life jacket)
- What would the conversation be like if Anderson could talk to the Commodore today?
- Katherine’s favorite takeaways from the book
No one can make money evaporate into thin air like a Vanderbilt.”From the book, Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty.
Personal Reflections and the Book’s Story Structure
I first Listened to Vanderbilt, and then I read the Kindle version because there were sections of the book that I wanted to highlight and capture notes.
As I was reading the chapters, I realized what the authors were doing in sharing the Vanderbilt history. I was not bombarded with needless facts to be quickly forgotten. They were telling important stories involving certain family members over the course of six Vanderbilt generations on Anderson Cooper’s mother’s side of the family. Presumably, these are the most important treasures Anderson wants his son to know as he grows into adulthood. Did I get that right? I’m not sure, but I think I’m close.
I’m not a publisher and certainly not a book editor, but there’s a part of me that wishes Anderson would have broken the fourth wall after each chapter (does that term exist in the book world?).
Katherine is a brilliant historian and researcher, and her ability to knit these narratives together came across seamlessly across these six generations. Yet, I wish we could have read why Anderson gave the nod to have these narratives included, and more importantly, what he hopes his son will gain from them at the end of each family story.
What are some of the narratives I’m referring to?
- A brief history of Cornelius Vanderbilt–entrepreneurially smart, yet ruthless in both business and with his children who feared him
- Alva’s role in bringing the Vanderbilts into high society and the new role she took on in a second life
- The young Gloria Vanderbilt and the trial of the century
- The Truman Capote connection
- Other narratives including Alva’s ball, a forced marriage, an epic boating race, and a major loss at sea.
In my notes, you’ll find the question, “What happened to the money and why?” As a reader or listener, you’ll figure that out. Billy Vanderbilt was the only family member to increase the family’s wealth. But he was more of a passive manager as opposed to finding new ways to invest in other industries. He was also no innovator as his father was.
Coincidentally, I read a biography about Harry Guggenheim after finishing Vanderbilt. Dirk Smillie in The Business of Tomorrow reveals that Harry was the bridge between his grandfather, father, and uncles, and the legacy behind the Guggenheim name today. The family’s success was not accidental as it started with a patriarch who taught that money was a tool, not an end. That message was shared across generations. That’s one compelling difference between two families of the past and offers some ideas on why one fortune blossomed while another wilted.
What happened to the Vanderbilt dynasty? Perhaps this book is a rekindling of what could have been.